China says it has successfully carried out its first-ever rendezvous of two orbiting spacecraft.
Officials say the unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft docked with the experimental Tiangong-1 module Thursday morning about 340 kilometers above the Earth's surface. The sophisticated procedure is a critical step in China's ambitions to establish a manned space station by 2020.
The official Xinhua news agency says Premier Wen Jiabao and other top officials witnessed the historic event at the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center. President Hu Jintao sent a congratulatory message from France, where he is attending the G-20 summit.
The two joined spacecraft will orbit the Earth for 12 days before separating and repeating the procedure. After two more days together, the Shenzhou-8 will undock from the module and return to Earth.
Australian space analyst Morris Jones tells VOA the docking maneuver was a critical step forward for China's ambitous space program.
"This is a very significant step," Jones said. "Because if China could not achieve rendezvous and docking in outer space, they would be unable to operate a space laboratory, or build a space station or do anything complex in outer space. Rendezvous and docking is a basic, fundamental skill in space flight."
However, he pointed out that China is only now mastering skills that the United States and Russia have had for more than 40 years.
"I would say with the successful rendezvous and docking, China is probably at much the same level as the USA in the late 1960s," Jones noted. "Probably around the year 1967, I would say, is where China is at the moment."
China plans two more docking missions with the Tiangong-1 module next year, with at least one of them carrying a live crew that could include China's first female astronaut.
But Jones says China has some ambitious plans for unmanned space flight as well.
"They are going to land a small robotic rover on the moon in 2013, and then a few years later we expect them to land a robotic spacecraft that will bring rock samples from the moon back to earth. China is also launching a small orbiter to Mars before the end of this month. They are doing that piggyback with the Russians. And they are also planning larger Mars probes of their own," he said.
Jones said many outside analysts believe China's long-term goal is to land astronauts on the moon.
Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.